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Apple TV: Worth It?

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Apple TV could do for television what the iPod did for music, at least that's what some analysts are saying. But it could also become the WebTV of media centers, the sort of device that you buy for Mom as a Christmas gift but that ultimately lands in the novelty arcade. Before dropping $300, you'd better know which one it's going to be.

Having played with Apple TV, it's easy enough to agree with what Mossy and Pogue have already told you: This device works very well if you don't mind that your entire digital media experience has to remain inside Apple's walled garden. And iLounge has offered 10 pretty convincing reasons why you don't need to buy an Apple TV right away. The biggest darts against Apple TV thus far are...

that it doesn't come with cables, and that it only works on widescreens. These crits are minor, and I don't mind that iTunes has to be running while I use the Apple TV either—I leave it on much of the time anyhow.


The real flaws that I see in Apple TV are, like many of its best attributes, more complex.

The Rest of Us

One of the mantras being uttered about Apple TV is that it's a PC-to-TV bridge for the rest of us. I'd really like to meet the restofus family, do they live nearby? Because I think the readers of Gizmodo and other blogs, along with thousands of other gadget lovers who aren't bleeding-edge techies, are the restofus. Between digital cable boxes with DVR functionality and TiVo, we are already well aware of what is possible when it comes to managing media on a TV. Apple TV over-simplifies things, and underestimates the base level of expectation that people have about the PC-to-TV experience. The bridge itself is not enough, it's got to be better than the VOD options I already have.

Besides, Apple TV is not really for all those digital movie neophytes anyhow. Let's take my mom as an example—surely, she's part of the restofus family, even if I'm not. Mom has lots of movies in her iTunes collection that aren't going to automatically work when she tries to watch them via Apple TV, like all those QuickTime clips of her grandson that I've mailed or posted on .Mac. When she calls me to ask why she can't watch those home movies on her Apple TV, I'm going to explain to her that those files have to be converted into the .m4v format first. And you know what? I lost her at the word explain.

Identity Crisis

Right now, Apple offers iTunes videos in standard definition that can only be played via Apple TV on my high-definition widescreen TV. The quality of the picture is noticeably shaggy. Be honest with me Mr. Jobs, is this the way *you* want to see "Pirates of the Caribbean"?

Needs Parenting

I love having a huge collection of movies that I never watch, like the entire Planet of the Apes TV series. I love having a trove of esoteric songs in my iTunes library, like Umbabarauma (the Stairway to Heaven of Brazilian samba). I love, most of all, being able to keep adding to my compost heap of pop culture without ever having to look back except when I'm making a party playlist. Apple TV requires management. You will not be able to just keep loading it up. You will have to go back over to iTunes and keep track of what you sync because that hard drive is just not big enough for my supersized entertainment appetite.

Lacks Control

The Apple remote works well enough for Front Row. But it's too minimalist for television. Using Apple TV requires a second remote control to adjust the volume of the audio. Most third-party remotes won't work with Apple TV either (although you can teach a "learning" remote control to work with it). It would have been so easy to update this twee Apple remote to be programmable or add, say, a scroll wheel. Apple usually thinks of everything, but not this time.

As it turns out, Apple TV does have the ability to evolve in a way that would solve every one of these problems. Here are the two ways:

The USB 2.0 port. Ostensibly for "service and diagnostics," the USB port on the backside of the Apple TV could potentially be used for everything from expanding the size of the hard drive to connecting with third-party devices such as TV tuners. Or, what the heck, sync with an iPod.

Direct Uplink Apple TV can connect to the Internet directly and wirelessly. Right now you don't control that connection. This could probably be changed with a simple upgrade. If you're going to give me access to iTunes from my couch, why not just let me buy movies like I do with VOD? Fix this one thing, and Apple TV becomes a lot more valuable.


Apple is mum about the inherent potential of both these features. Let's hope they start talking soon. But let's also be honest here: There isn't much incentive for Apple to improve things. There is no perfect bridge between the PC and the TV yet. The Xbox 360 experience is flawed in its own ways. And everything else I've seen, including Windows, has its share of problems too (much of them related to ease-of-use). Which brings me back to the real question: Should you buy it? While I don't think this is going to be another WebTV exactly, Apple is going to have to do a bit more work on this device before it's something that Jason Chen will want to shove down his pants.